Monday, July 03, 2006

Jim Baen

Jim Baen died June 28. Baen intrigued me not only because I once consumed large quantities of science fiction, but because he was an experimental pioneer in the file-sharing arena.

As the publisher of Baen Books, he established the Baen Free Library: full-content texts of Baen Books publications. He established it to test the marketing value of open-content media. This was one of the threads I myself followed for NSD. Here's what I wrote for NSD 7.01 (January 14, 2001):
Baen Free Library Offers Free Books

One day, SF author Eric Flint got into a virtual brawl with a number of his peers over online piracy of copyrighted works and what to do about it. One school of thought holds that the problem is best handled with the "handcuffs and brass knucks" of tougher law enforcement and technological fixes. Eric, on the other hand, feels that online piracy is at most a nuisance, and that any losses it causes are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which free book copies usually engender. His publisher, the extremely experienced Jim Baen, told Eric to put his money where his mouth is and make his own books available for free. Eric obliged, and after some reflection so did a number of other prominent authors in the Baen Books stable. And so we are blessed with the Baen Free Library, where Eric Flint, David Drake, David Weber, and other top selling SF authors offer some of their books for free: unabridged, no strings attached, and with the full blessing of their publisher. Visit the library for no other reason than to read Eric's lucid take on the whole issue of content piracy. While you're there, download the books in several popular electronic formats. A brave experiment.

I followed up a year later in NSD 8.16 (April 26, 2002):
Free Content Leads to More Sales - A Study

Can giving away intellectual content increase your profits? If the Baen Free Library is any indication, free, unencrypted information leads to dollars, lots of dollars. Jim Baen is a science fiction publisher. One of his authors, Eric Flint, challenged him to put texts of books up on the Web for free download. Baen agreed, as long as Flint's books would be the ones to go online, and so it happened (see NSD 7.01). Other authors, including Harlan Ellison, claim that pirated texts on the Web cost them royalties - and all of us know about the battles over online music. In this little experiment, Baen and Flint discovered that sales of Flint's titles increased dramatically once they appeared online, sometimes by over 200%. Flint analyzed the numbers and came up with this essay, linked below. While primarily anecdotal in nature, it provides some healthy support for the notion that free electronic content promotes hard-copy sales. Toward the end of his essay, Flint throws out a bit about textbook publishing - when college presses post free e-textbooks, sales of the hardcover books rise for this genre as well. Information may not only want to be free, it might want to make you money....
NSD 7.01:

David Drake, in his Baen obituary, writes that "while e-publishing has been a costly waste of effort for others, Baen Books quickly began earning more from electronic sales than it did from Canada ($6,000/month). By the time of Jim's death, the figure had risen to ten times that."

SF is fine and all, but Baen earned my admiration for putting his financial butt on the line to demonstrate a principle.


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